WITH THE imminent departure of Theresa May, the political landscape has changed dramatically.

Many hopefuls are lining up for the job, which comes with the perk of instantly becoming prime minister. We are now in for months of political infighting – but for farmers all this will do is heap uncertainty on top of uncertainty.

Looking at the runners and riders for this election race. there is little doubt that when the dust settles a Leave campaigner will be the winner. The odds, for now, favour Boris Johnson, but he has some skilled and wily opponents. Ironically they include two ministers with Defra links. Andrea Leadsom was a wasted opportunity for progress on agriculture after the referendum. Michael Gove has been better, but he was always too big a political beast to be constrained by a minor department. He came up with some good ideas on farm support, but always had bigger fish to fry and leadership ambitions. That said, of those in the race, he would probably be the safest pair of hands for agriculture amongst those with any chance of winning.

History has shown that tough people are better at making deals that demand a step back from entrenched positions. It could be that leave advocates are better placed to deliver a Brexit outcome that will not differ much from the withdrawal agreement that foundered on the rocks of Tory party divisions. Leave advocates are better equipped to compromise in key areas. One certainty is that no matter who wins the leadership fight, the EU is not going to re-open negotiations. It may further clarify the so-called political declaration if it will get a deal over the line, but not the core document. It has already factored in the consequences of the UK leaving without a deal.

The view in Brussels is that this would hurt the UK economy more than the EU-27. It would benefit neither, but with right-wing and populist parties on the rise in the EU, Brussels has no options other than to defend its core principles against others tempted to follow the UK. The current European Commission, under Jean Claude Juncker, is coming to the end of its term. It has nothing to lose from sticking to its principles and will do so, regardless of who is in Downing Street by the summer. The arrival of a new Commission and its settling in period will be too slow a process for it to set a new agenda for the UK.

Tory Brexiteers, including some seeking the top job, are saying that come October 31 we will leave the EU, with or without a deal. This certainly moves the 'no deal' option up the agenda, influenced by the success of Nigel Farage's one-man Brexit party in the European elections. This would be a disastrous outcome for Scottish agriculture, and it is not what farmers were promised in 2016 when many were temped to leave the EU to escape the red tape of the CAP. Trading on World Trade Organisation terms would close the UK out of many traditional food export markets.

The classic economic theory argument would be that since the UK imports more food from the EU-27 than it exports, a market opportunity for UK farmers would be created. However that might not happen. The response time would be too slow, so any government at Westminster would respond by eliminating tariffs on food imports to keep down or even reduce prices. This would see farmers lose export markets and have their home market undermined by cheap imports. The government has suggested it would offer financial aid, but this would be short term. Since a 'no deal' Brexit would hit the UK economy in the short and possibly medium term, tax revenues would fall and that is not the climate for long term generosity towards agriculture.

It is easy to talk tough, but in agriculture and beyond, economic pragmatism is that a 'no deal' exit from our biggest trading partner would be a bad outcome. To have the EU-27 with its massive agriculture industry as a competitor to the UK is a daunting prospect. We have to hope this will be avoided. Sound advice is to stick to that hope, ignore all that is said by Tory leadership hopefuls and trust that wiser heads will prevail by the autumn.

Despite their bluster, a deal or a general election are still more likely prospects than a cliff edge jump into the economic unknown.